Thursday, December 26, 2019

What's in a Name

Customarily we call people to the Torah using their Hebrew names. “Yaamod Shmaryah ben Tzemach v’Masha.” But we go about our days using our English names. “Stand up Steven Moskowitz.”

Except at synagogue, or perhaps at weddings and funerals, we rarely call people by their Hebrew names. So why are people surprised that our patriarch Joseph goes by an Egyptian name instead of the Hebrew name his parents gave him?

The Torah reports: “Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah.” (Genesis 41) In ancient Egyptian, this means “God speaks; he lives.” First Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his number two, in charge of shepherding Egypt through the impending famine. Then he gives him a proper Egyptian name, as well as a wife, by the way.

Like Joseph we live in two worlds. We carry two names. Our identities are hyphenated. American-Jew. Which name we rely on depends upon the circumstance. Do I identify as a Jew? Or should I be called by my American identity? It depends on who we are standing beside. It depends upon the environment.

The Israeli poet, Zelda, suggests it depends on even more. We have far more than just two names. She writes:
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls

Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love

Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to him by his work

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.
Her poem is beautiful in its simplicity. It is thought-provoking, and at times haunting. How many encounters, how many circumstances offer us new names? We are left wondering.

How do we wish to be known?

The rabbis offer an exclamation.

“The crown of a good name is superior to them all.” (Pirke Avot 4)

And that works in Hebrew or in English—and even in Egyptian—or any language for that matter.

It’s really all about earning a good name.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Let's Be Proud...and Be Careful

Although the true history of Hanukkah recounts a bloody civil war between Jewish zealots led by Judah Maccabee with their fellow Jews enamored of Greek culture, we prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil.  Here is that idealized version.

A long time ago, approximately 2,200 years before our generation, the Syrian-Greeks ruled much of the world and in particular the land of Israel.  Their king, Antiochus, insisted that all pray and offer sacrifices as he did.  He outlawed Jewish practice and desecrated the holy Temple.  But our heroes, the Maccabees, rebelled against his rule.  After nearly three years of battle, the Maccabees prevailed.  They recaptured the Temple.

When the Jews entered the Temple, they were horrified to discover that their holiest of shrines had been transformed and remade to suit pagan worship.  They declared a dedication (the meaning of hanukkah) ceremony.   Soon they discovered that there was only enough holy oil to last for one of the eight day long ceremony.  Still they lit the menorah that adorned the sanctuary.  And lo and behold, a great miracle happened there.  The oil lasted not for the expected single day but for all eight days.    

The rabbis therefore decreed that we should light Hanukkah candles on each of this holiday’s nights, beginning on the first evening, on the twenty fifth of Kislev.  (The customs of spinning dreidels and eating foods fried in oil came much later.)  The rabbis pronounced: “It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If a person lives upstairs, he places it at the window most adjacent to the public domain.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

Contrary to the contemporary ethic of privacy where what we do in our own homes is not to be publicized to the outside world, the rabbis instruct us that we must display the menorah so that others may see it.  Why?  So that the world might also learn about the miracle of Hanukkah.  So that others might see that God performs wonders.

Are not our Jewish identities meant to be hidden?  No, the rabbis declare.  They are intended to be proclaimed to the world.  Even though everyone else appears to be celebrating other holidays at this time of year, we reaffirm that we have our own unique faith, and that we are proud to publicize it.  The rabbis counsel that we should proudly proclaim our Jewish faith—at least during the eight days of Hanukkah.  That is the message of the Maccabees.  That is the import of their revolt against those who wished to suppress Jewish practice.  

But what happens if Jews live in a time and place when placing the menorah in their windows could be dangerous?  The rabbis decree: “And in a time of danger he places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.”  What should we do now?  Where should we place the menorah today?  Is our own era a time of danger? 

Recently I met with a friend who was visiting from Israel.  He told me that he now covers his kippah with a baseball hat when going out to restaurants in New York.  He is afraid.  I heard as well of young couples who second guess their decision to send their children to a Jewish nursery school for fear that it could be a target of antisemitic attacks.  After years of increasing attacks, after the most recent Jersey City murders and the assault at Indiana University to name a few, fear has come to dominate our discussions of Jewish identity.  Where is it safe to declare our Jewishness?

Should we hide our identity?  Can the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, help us to figure out what constitutes a real danger?  Later authorities suggest that the rabbis understood danger to mean when Jewish practice is outlawed, such as during the Maccabean revolt.  Only then should we move our menorahs to “safer ground.”  But who gets to decide what dangerous means?  Our rabbis?  Our tradition?

Instead it is each of us. Danger is of course a matter of perception.  It is in truth more about feelings than threats.  If a person is afraid, then the threat is real. 

I have been thinking that perhaps my frequent trips to Israel have provided me with some helpful measures of strength and resolve.  The modern era grants us something that our ancient rabbis could never have imagined: a sovereign Jewish state, a state that can fight back against our enemies.  We look to a state that can fortify us and offer us even greater courage in the face of this growing tide of antisemitic hate.

This is why I found it so surprising that it was my Israeli friend who now expresses fear.  Perhaps it is even more a matter of where one feels at home.  If we feel at home we are less likely to feel afraid. 

Today we are called once again to fight back against antisemitism.  Our day demands that we never allow this hate even the space to breathe.  We must stand up.  We must be forever proud.  But we must also be prudent.  The rabbis’ caution is well taken.

The most important point of course is that regardless of where we decide to place the menorah, regardless of whether or not we are afraid, we light the candles.  Find that place.  Find the place where you are comfortable proudly declaring your Jewish faith.  And there light the menorah.  This year most especially, this holiday of Hanukkah demands no less. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Kiss of Reconciliation

The Torah scroll is beautifully calligraphed. Each of its letters is meticulously drawn. It takes a Torah scribe one year to fashion a single scroll. Some letters have small, stylized crowns. The chapters and verses are perfectly arranged in columns, unfettered by punctuation marks. Although each scroll is different because it is fashioned by a different scribe, the letters and words of every Torah are calligraphed in a similar manner.

“Moses” looks the same in every Torah scroll. There is the mem, the first letter of Moshe. Then the shin, adorned with its crowns, and finally the heh. Like all the other words in the Torah, there are no vowels below the letters or cantillation marks above the letters. In fact, only a very small fraction of words in the Torah have additional notations.

Very few words have marks above the letters. This week we discover one of these unique examples: “Vayishakeyhu—and he kissed him.” Calligraphed above each of its letters is a dot. Here is the story that surrounds this kiss. Our forefather Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs and builds a life for himself with his uncle. He marries (several times) and fathers many children. Now, many years later, the brothers are to be reunited, and we hope, reconciled.

This week we read, “Jacob himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) The brothers appear reconciled. What led to the reconciliation? Was it Jacob’s act of humbling himself before his brother? Was it Esau’s embrace? The seventh century Masoretes, who developed the traditions of calligraphy with which a Torah is scribed, suggest it was the kiss.

Holding his brother close, Esau kissed Jacob and kissed him again and again, until they both wept. The Rabbis concur: “The word ‘kissed’ is dotted above each letter in the Torah’s writing. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said: this teaches that Esau felt compassion in that moment and kissed Jacob with all his heart. (Bereshit Rabbah) Reconciliation can only be achieved when people bring their heart—in its entirety. Repair involves compassion for the other. It necessitates forgiveness. And these must derive from the heart.

A kiss can be perfunctory. The Torah’s calligraphy suggests that, in this case it is anything but. A kiss should be punctuated by intention. Here it offers the compassion and forgiveness that leads to the weeping of reconciliation. The brothers stand together.

We are of course the descendants of Jacob. The tradition teaches that our enemies are the descendants of Esau. I wonder if our ancient calligraphers intended to teach that reconciliation between brothers is our most cherished hope and prayer.

Why else would they notate this word in a different manner than all other words?

Embedded in the kiss Esau offers Jacob is our tradition’s hope that the descendants of Esau will one day make peace with the descendants of Jacob. One day, we pray, we might make peace with our enemies, who, our tradition reminds us, are, and will always be, our brothers.

The Torah wishes to punctuate this hope for reconciliation and repair. One day brothers, and all humanity, will be at peace with each other.

And we will embrace, kiss, and finally weep as one family.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Finding Our Shul and Our Path

Among my favorite, and often quoted, books is Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (The title alone is enough to get me to pick it up again and again.) Solnit offers a number of observations about travel, nature, science and discovering ourselves. She begins: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” The question is the beginning of apprehension. (And this is exactly why apprehension has two meanings.) Journeying, and the curiosity that must drive it, leads to wisdom.

Uncertainty is where real learning begins.

Our hero Jacob stands at the precipice of an uncertain time. He is running from home. He has just tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. Esau has promised to kill him. Their mother, Rebekah, urges Jacob to leave and go to her brother, Laban. Their father Isaac instructs him, “Get up! Go to Paddan-Aram.”

Jacob is alone. He wanders the desert wilderness. Soon he stops for the night. Jacob dreams. He sees angels climbing a ladder that reaches to heaven. He hears God’s voice saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and your father Isaac. Remember. I am with you.” (Genesis 28). Jacob awakes. He recognizes God’s presence. He has found God in this desolate, and non-descript landscape. He exclaims, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than beth-el, the house of God.”

Rebecca Solnit again. She leans on Tibetan wisdom: “Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.” Is it possible, I wonder, that a journey precipitated by feelings of anxiety, bewilderment, and even abandonment (I imagine our forefather thought, “Now my brother wants to kill me. My father tells me to get out. Where am I to go? What am I to do?”) leads to finding one’s bearings? Jacob’s uncertain path is becoming clearer.

In Tibetan, the word for path is “shul.” Solnit continues:
[Shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet, which has kept it clear of obstructions and maintained it for the use of others.
It seems to me that this is how we also view shul (the Yiddish term for synagogue). It is a path left by others. And now, I am left wondering.

How does our shul not become an “impression of something that used to be there”? If synagogue is only about our imaginations of yesterday, then how do we carve our own path? If authenticity is only driven by what we believe our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did, and did not do, then how do we create our own impression, in our own image? Too much of what we expect, and want, from our synagogues revolves around the question of how they honor the past. “There is not enough Hebrew at that synagogue” is, for example, a common refrain.

I am thinking. How can we carve a path while looking backward? How do we find our way when looking back, at some impression of yesteryear? How then do we find our own shul?

It is not just a building. It is not as well a destination. It cannot only be the impression made by others, long ago.

It is instead a path.

Jacob awakes, startled, but perhaps more aware. He exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place.”


Exactly where you are standing.

Just leave the door open.

And heed the voice.

Get up. Go.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving Poems

As we prepare to gather with family and friends in celebration of Thanksgiving and give thanks for the plentiful food, and wine, arranged before us, we pause to acknowledge the privilege and blessing of calling this country our home.

I turn to my poetry books. Recently I discovered Samuel Menashe.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York City in 1925 to Russian Jewish immigrants. He served in the United States infantry during World War II and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. After taking advantage of the GI bill, he traveled to France and earned his PhD from the Sorbonne. Later he taught poetry and literature at CW Post College. He died in 2011. He is a relatively unknown American poet.

Perhaps reading his poetry might help to remind me of how America has inspired Jews and given rise to untold Jewish creativity. His poems, at times feel playful, but then again religious.

I offer three poems:
Dusk of the year
Nightfalling leaves
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through

Eyes open to praise
The play of light
Upon the ceiling—
While still abed raise
The roof this morning
Rejoice as you please
Your Maker who made
This day while you slept,
Who gives you grace and ease,
Whose promise is kept.
‘Let them sing for joy upon their beds.’— Psalm 149

There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen—
The eternal event is now, not when.
Each day is indeed a blessing. Every day is an occasion for giving thanks.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

At What Age are We Called Wise?

If we pray every day and offer the tradition’s prescribed set of prayers, we begin with the singing of psalms and the recitation of blessings. The prayer book’s philosophy is that a soul can be both fortified, and unburdened, by the shouting of blessings and praises for our God. Only then do we move on to our requests. And the very first request we make of God is the following:
You grace humans with knowledge and teach mortals understanding. Graciously share with us Your wisdom, insight and knowledge. Blessed are You, Adonai, who graces us with knowledge.
Before asking for health or even forgiveness, we beseech God, and say, “Please grant us wisdom, insight and knowledge.” This is a curious place to begin. Why is this the first of our asks? Why begin the emotional exercise of prayer with a request for the intellect?

Why begin our litany of requests by asking for knowledge, insight and wisdom? Knowledge is something that is gained by study and learning. Insight, which other prayer books translate as understanding, is something that is acquired after much discussion and thought. And wisdom is attained only after years and years of experience.

Perhaps we begin with these words because the rabbis who authored these prayers believed that all knowledge, insight and wisdom begin with God. I now wonder. Can a prayer really be a prayer if it does not connect the mind to the spirit? In the Judaism that I love, and teach, head and heart must be combined. There should be a unity of thought and deed. I stand against thoughtless actions.

Then again, I find that my mind often wanders during our prayers. I discover myself singing the words but thinking of the day’s events or my weekend’s plans. I sing “Adon olam asher malach…” but my thoughts turn to the morning’s bike ride (I crushed that hill) or the evening’s dinner plans (I am looking forward to the tuna sashimi).

Is the unity of thought and deed possible all the time, in every moment?

I pray again, “God, please grant us wisdom, insight and knowledge.”

It is a never ending struggle. It is a daily endeavor. Can knowledge, insight and wisdom be granted by God? Are they not in our hands? Perhaps this first request, this first prayer is a reminder of what I must do each and every day. Commit myself anew to the attainment of knowledge. Read something new. Of insight. Ponder the words I read again and again. But wisdom?

This cannot be achieved in a single moment, or by the performance of a solitary act. It is not acquired by carefully reading a certain book, no matter how important or holy that book might be. Even though the Torah is read again and again, and over and over, wisdom still eludes us.

Wisdom is gained only after years and years. It is the sum total of countless experiences. Can a twenty year old ever be called wise? Can a fifty year old really be imbued with wisdom?

At what age is one be deemed wise?

At seventy? At eighty three? A hundred and twenty?

We read, “Abraham was now old, advanced in years.” (Genesis 24) In Hebrew, zaken, old is associated with wisdom. The rabbis teach that zaken points to an acronym, “zeh kanah hokhmah—this one has acquired wisdom.” Old is not a measure of years but instead a sign of wisdom. Zaken does not mean aged but wise.

And how old is Abraham? 175 years.

I have acquired this knowledge. I have gained this insight. I have achieved this wisdom.

Each of us has many, many more years to go before attaining wisdom and before being called, zaken.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

No Retreat from the World

I retreat to the Torah. It is a welcome distraction from the news and our country’s painful divisions.

This week we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities are marked by sinfulness. As in the story of Noah, God decides to start all over and wipe out the sinfulness. Again God shares the plan with a chosen, and trusted, person. This time it is Abraham. God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 18)

God reveals the plan to Abraham. But Abraham pleads in behalf of the people. Abraham argues (and negotiates) with God exacting a promise that if ten righteous people can be found then the cities should be saved. In the end Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. By the way, some suggest is the origin of the required number of ten for a minyan.

And yet the Torah is unclear about what these cities’ inhabitants did that was so terrible. What were their sins? We are given only hints. “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” Throughout the ages commentators have suggested that the people were guilty of sexual depravity. They cite as evidence the accompanying story that the townspeople attempted to rape the divine messengers who visit Lot, a resident of Sodom and a nephew of Abraham. This explains the English term “sodomy.”

Later the prophet Ezekiel offers more detail: “Only this was the sin of your sister city Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16) He sees their sin in social terms. The cities were destroyed because of their failure to reach out to the needy and most vulnerable. There was plenty of food to share and yet they kept it all to themselves.

They were arrogant. They felt themselves superior. They shared little with the hungry. They turned a blind eye to those in need.

The rabbis expand upon the prophet Ezekiel’s understanding. They saw the cities’ sinfulness in their treatment of others, most especially their failure to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. They argue that this sin would have been understandable if Sodom and Gomorrah were poor cities, but they were in fact wealthy. The rabbis weave a story describing the streets of these cities as paved with gold. They taught that the cities’ inhabitants flooded the cities’ gates in an effort to prevent strangers from entering and finding refuge there.

In the rabbinic imagination, the cities were destroyed because of their own moral lapses. They were affluent. There was plenty of food for them to eat. Yet they did not share it with anyone. They hoarded it for themselves. They prevented strangers from entering their cities. They thought only of their own welfare and their own livelihood.

I hear Rabbi Gunther Plaut teaching, “The treatment accorded newcomers and strangers was then and may always be considered a touchstone of a community’s moral condition.”

And I am left to wonder. Can any retreat be found?

I search in vain for distractions.

The Torah appears to speak of today. It continues to speak to today.

That is its most important, and powerful, voice.

Perhaps I should give up the search…for distractions.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Two States for Two Peoples

Last week I attended JStreet’s National Conference in Washington DC. What follows are some of my impressions. First a word about JStreet’s mission. JStreet was founded a little over ten years ago to advocate for, and lobby in behalf of, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, it supports the creation of a Palestinian state in a large portion of the West Bank, as well as perhaps Gaza, living alongside the Jewish State of Israel. AIPAC by contrast, although officially affirming the need for two states, avoids prescribing a solution to this conflict, claiming instead that this is for Israelis, and Palestinians, to decide. AIPAC’s mission is to make sure there is strong bipartisan support for Israel, and in particular for Israel’s security, in the United States Congress.

I will also be attending the AIPAC Policy Conference the beginning of March. Unlike AIPAC which both Democrats and Republicans attend, there were only senators and representatives from the Democratic Party at JStreet. There were also only Israelis from the center and left in attendance. While I recognize that many find JStreet controversial I struggle to understand why it is deemed out of bounds. Among those in attendance, and those who spoke to the 4,000 participants, were Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) and admiral in Israel’s navy. Their security credentials are unmatched. More about that later. First a few details about my personal journey regarding the question of two states for two peoples.

I have long believed that the two state solution is the only answer, albeit an imperfect one, to the conflict....

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Road Trips

One of the most important discussions on any journey, most especially a road trip, is where to make stops. “We’re coming up on a rest stop, does anyone need to use the bathroom?” is a frequently heard question. And, “No,” is the typical response, most especially when your passengers are fixated on watching their YouTube videos. And then five minutes later, after flying past Molly Pitcher (do I hear any cheers for the Jersey Turnpike?), a small voice is heard, “I have to go to the bathroom.” And now, you are twenty minutes from the next rest stop, assuming the ideal, and unrealistic, scenario that the Turnpike is empty of traffic, and you have to make an unscheduled stop.

Or the fuel light comes on, and it is time to refill the gas tank. Or the passengers complain that they are hungry, or they appear cranky, and you decide that everyone needs a break, a chance to stretch their legs, and an escape from the crowded car. “Ten minutes and then we are back on the road,” you shout as they bolt out their seats.

But here is exactly where the adventure might begin. Here is where a discovery might occur. Where the destination is delayed, a story often breaks free.

“Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” (Genesis 12)

And I am left wondering about those stages. Where did our forefather stop? What caused him to delay? What place grabbed hold of his heart, or his imagination, and called to him, “We should camp here. We should pause in this place.”

I am certain some of these unforeseen stops, and stages, were made for the most mundane, and routine, of reasons. Even in ancient times, someone must have shouted about a bathroom break. Or the animals needed to rest. Or the food and water had to be replenished. Or, our ancestors were simply tired and exhausted and they could drive on no further. Other times, I would like to imagine, there was something about the place, or the people they encountered on their adventure, that made Abram and Sarai stay longer. “In this place, we should take our time. We should linger.”

So much of our lives are spent searching for a goal and heading toward a destination. So much of our lives are encapsulated by that often heard statement, “Ten minutes and then we are back on the road.” Life is truly lived not in these achieved destinations, but in the stages, and pauses, taken along the way. Meaning is found in the steps discovered along the journey. Life is in some very important ways about the pit stops.

It is in the unexpected conversations found, in the chance meeting made on our way to something else.

And so I am now wondering what it would be like to travel the world without purchasing a return ticket home. I wonder what it might be like to see the world not according to some prearranged itinerary (“Day one: the temples of Kyoto.”), but instead to see what place might call to you and what site might beg you to linger.

For two thousand years the Jewish people have prayed, and in many ages, hoped beyond any realistic hope, that we might return to the land of Israel. This was, and still is, our destination. It figures in so many of our prayers. And now we are there. But there were so many stages along this journey. We built homes in Russia, Iraq, France and Syria. We founded communities in Spain, Turkey, England or America just to name a few. In some of these places there is no longer a Jewish presence and in others we are still there, journeying. We are still lingering.

And now I realize. This is what must define us: the pauses, and the unexpected turns. How is it that your family made their way to this place and found itself in this home? Look back on your own personal stories and histories. Was everything so carefully planned? Or did they only have enough money to make it to New York and no further. And so they stayed, and lingered.

Those stops might be as important as the final, intended, destination.

So next time, don’t just run in and out of the rest stop so you can get back on the road as quickly as possible. Linger. And learn.

The truth is arriving offers far less journeying. And learning is perhaps best discovered when lingering.

The stages have always defined us.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Save Yourself?

There is a Yiddish expression, tzaddik im peltz, meaning a righteous person in a fur coat. It is a curious phrase.

The great Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, offers an illustration. When one is cold at home, there are two ways to become warm. One can heat the home or get dressed in a fur coat. The difference between the two is that in the first case the entire house is warmed and everyone sitting in it feels comfortable. Whereas in the second case only the person wearing the coat feels warm, but everyone else continues to freeze.

Righteousness is meant to warm others. It is not meant to warm the soul of the person who performs the righteous deeds. Too often people clothe themselves in good deeds. They hold their heads high and wrap themselves in comforting thoughts. “Look at the good I have done.” They warm themselves in a coat of righteousness.

The task, however, is to build a fire. We are called to bring warmth and healing to others.

A coat of righteousness does no good unless it is wrapped around others.

The Torah relates: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; and Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6)

God informs Noah that the world, and all its inhabitants, will be destroyed because of its wickedness. So God instructs Noah to build an ark to save two animals of every species as well as his own family. I am left wondering. There is no another righteous person in the world? Noah was the only one?

Apparently Noah agrees with this evaluation. The world is about to be destroyed and Noah offers no argument. He offers no protest. Perhaps he does believe he is indeed the only righteous person in the world.

So God says, “Noah, save yourself.”

And now Noah appears to me as a tzaddik im peltz. The rabbis attempt to suggest that he really builds fires. They suggest Noah takes his time building the ark. He makes sure to do the building where everyone can see the project. The ark was meant not so much to save his family and all the animals but instead as a sign. People were meant to see the ark and repent of their evil ways. But they of course ignore the sign and continue with their lives as if nothing is wrong.

And we continue to walk amid all the signs, amid the fires and floods. We look away from the signs of our potential destruction. We wrap ourselves in fur coats, warming ourselves and proclaiming our righteousness, but doing little more than Noah. We build an ark for ourselves and our families.

I wish to be more than a tzaddik im peltz.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

All Over Again!?

We have to read the Torah all over again? We have to read the creation story once more? 

This week we begin reading the Torah all over again. Our celebrations of Simhat Torah are now in the rear view mirror. Once more we open the Bible’s pages to the story of the world’s creation. We read about Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and Abraham and Sarah. We read all over again about the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, forty years of wandering, the building of the tabernacle, and the Torah’s many laws and commandments. Before we know it we will unroll the scroll and read about Moses’ death.

But why do this year after year? Why read the same book, the same chapters and the same verses over and over again? In almost every other instance once we read a book, we put it aside. If we really like the story we might give it to a friend. If we deem it a masterpiece, we might grant it an exalted place on our bookshelves. But not with the Torah.

As soon as we finish it, we turn back to the beginning. We read the same story all over again, again and again, year after year. Why?

The answer is simple, yet profound. There is a power to beginning all over again. There is a faith that even though we read these same pages last year, this year we might uncover some new truth. Last year I could have missed something. Last time I read it, perhaps my focus was lacking during that week’s reading. This year some new truth might become revealed.

This year I may in fact find those elusive answers to life’s many questions. I may discover added meaning.

To begin again, to begin anew, offers promise. This year is going to be better. This year something new, and different, might be revealed. Even though I don’t feel any closer, despite years and years of study and learning, I open the book once again with renewed hope.

That is why we never let go of this seeming repetitious assignment. This is why we refuse to look at the Torah as any other book. We are determined that it must not, it cannot remain on our bookshelves among even our most cherished volumes. It must be read, again and again.

This year something might be revealed. This year something new might be discovered. This year, a truth might become illuminated. We open the book once again.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”

Our hope is restored.

A new truth awaits us.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Some More Kisses

The Torah is of course what we most prize and deem most holy.

Some people were upset because they did not get a chance to kiss the Torah scrolls this past Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, there was a traffic jam in the sanctuary’s middle aisle. I therefore decided it would be best to avoid the congestion and take the Torah scrolls around the outer aisles. A number of people were unable to kiss the Torah and shared their disappointment with me after services. I am really sorry.

I underestimated the power and importance of this ritual. Now I want to take a few moments to think more deeply about this custom. First a clarification. Actually we don’t kiss the Torah. Instead we allow it to give us a kiss. We touch our hand, or prayerbook, or tallis to the scroll and then touch our lips. This custom is the same as that for a mezuzah. When entering our homes, we reach up, touch our fingertips to the mezuzah and then touch our hand to our lips.

We don’t kiss the mezuzah or the Torah. We allow these holy objects to kiss us. We allow them to offer us a measure of their holiness.

We are not nearly as holy as these sacred objects. The Torah is more holy than we are. Or is it? Torah cannot really be Torah without us. It needs us.

We must read it. We must study it. We must discuss it and debate it. If it were obvious what the Torah always said or meant, then there would be no need for interpretation, there would be no need for the volumes and volumes of holy books, spanning thousands of years. There would be no need for…rabbis. What makes Torah Torah is our relationship to it.

We do not worship it. We do not hold it up as an amulet. We must carry it. We dance among its verses. We discover ourselves in its chapters.

We touch it so that we may take some of its holiness into our lives. That task is actually a daily endeavor. We touch it and allow it to give us a kiss so that we might be reminded that we must take more Torah into our lives—always. To touch the Torah is to remind us of what is our holiest task. To do better. To bring a measure of healing to the world around us.

We need the Torah to carry us as much as it needs us to carry it.

Still, on Simhat Torah, everyone and anyone who wants can again have an opportunity to kiss the Torah and even dance with these scrolls. Come to Simhat Torah services and grab this additional opportunity. Even though Yom Kippur is the more widely observed Jewish holiday, Simhat Torah is the more quintessential day. On it we sing and dance. We rejoice and feast. What could be more Jewish than a party?

On this day we remind ourselves that holding the Torah close to our hearts is our most important task. On Simhat Torah we endeavor to take more Torah into our lives.

And some extra kisses never hurt to remind us of this task.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Keep the Gates Open

I often complain about the holiday schedule, especially during this time of year. Why put two major holidays one week apart from each other? And then as soon as we finish the Yom Kippur fast, ask us to build a sukkah and celebrate this week long festival. And finally, command us to rejoice and celebrate with great revelry the holiday of Simhat Torah, marking the start of the Torah reading cycle all over again. Would it not have been better to spread the holidays out? Perhaps we could even have Rosh Hashanah in the fall and then Yom Kippur in the spring.

Such choices are of course not in our hands. And so one major holiday comes in quick succession, one right after another. We barely have enough time to come up for air. We turn from the beating of our chests and recounting of our sins on Yom Kippur to the banging of hammers as we put up our sukkahs and then the hosting of elaborate get-togethers in these temporary booths which signify the Israelites wandering through the desert wilderness. Why do we so quickly move from one major holiday to another? Why is this Hebrew month of Tishrei so demanding?

We only just gathered for the beautiful and concluding Yom Kippur Neilah service. As the gates of repentance are about to close, we prayed, “Open for us the gates of repentance and return, that we may enter and offer our best. Open for us the gates of forgiveness, that we may enter and offer our humanity.” This image of the closing of these gates is meant to inspire us to commit to repentance, to try to change and do better in the coming year. The gates have now closed. And so we must be resolved to commit to change.

But does the calendar, and most especially this month of Tishrei, even leave us time to do the hard work of repentance?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the somewhat obscure holiday of Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. The rabbis suggest that these gates of repentance do not actually close on Yom Kippur but instead on this penultimate day of Sukkot. Sukkot becomes not just a celebration of God bringing us out of Egypt, but an extension of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s as if the tradition reminds us that God knows the assignment is incomplete. God grants the students an extension. We have some more days to fix things, to start anew.

We are then reminded of an essential truth. The assignment is always incomplete. We always have to fix ourselves. We always have to change. We always have to recommit ourselves to repair.

Despite all the pledge to do better on the days just past, this job is always incomplete. Our commitments to do better are often just as temporary as the sukkah’s flimsy roof that cannot even keep out one drop of rain. Still God is always waiting for us to do better. And God keeps extending the deadline. God keeps hoping we can do better.

The gates of repentance remain forever open.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

FOMO is a Real Thing

What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon.

On this Yom Kippur I wish to speak about the inner life. In particular I want to talk about fear. It is real. It is pervasive. We are frightened by a resurgent antisemitism. And to be sure, I spent plenty of time talking about antisemitism and how we might battle it on Rosh Hashanah. We are afraid of terrorism and wonder where the next attack might be. 9-11’s wounds still run deep. Our children are terrified by climate change and speak about the rising of the oceans as if it’s already happening here on Long Island. Our parents are nervous about the economy and watch the stock indexes as if their very next meal depended on it. We are nervous about our children getting into college or getting into too much trouble when they are away at college or later, traveling by themselves throughout this broken world or then finding a job that they will find fulfilling and meaningful. We read about the latest threats to our health, which medicines might cause cancer and which habits might shorten our years. We are afraid of strangers and time after time, decide we would rather go out with trusted friends rather than going someplace new and meeting new people. Need I go on—again? There is an endless list. Each of us could add plenty of items to the compilation. Each of us carries a host of fears in our hearts. And, I could on this Yom Kippur day explore any one of these challenges, and fears. That is not my intention. Instead I wish instead to speak to how are we going to manage this fear. I wish to continue the discussion we began on Rosh Hashanah evening. Where are we going to place these overwhelming fears? How are we going to move forward without being consumed by them? How can we no longer be ruled by our terrors?

Our tradition offers some guidance. That, as you might expect, would of course by my perspective. It stands to reason that a rabbi would think Judaism has the answers. Let’s first examine these days, called Yamim Noraim, days of awe. But the Hebrew word for awe, yirah is the same as it is for fear. These days could also be translated as days of terror. There are any number of our prayers that invoke fear. “On Rosh Hashanah this is written, on the fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed, how many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die…” Thank God the cantor sings this prayer to an upbeat tune. “B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” (And thank God the cantor sings it rather than me.) The music is an antidote to the prayer’s literal meaning. Do we even believe such words, “…who by fire and who by water, who by war and who by beast, who by earthquake and who by plague…”? Are they meant to frighten?

According to legend this Unetanah Tokef prayer was authored Rabbi Amnon, an eleventh century Jewish leader living in Mainz, Germany, who was brutally tortured and martyred. Prior to his death, during these very days, he offered these words, “Unenatanah tokef kedushat hayom.” And that, quite frankly, just makes this prayer all the more frightening. “B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” And that of course brings me to one answer of how we should confront fear. Sing! Sing loudly. Clap your hands and dance. I’m not saying ignore the terrors. But music has a way of healing. It has a way of even banishing fear or at the very least helping us to forget them for a little while.

No rabbi exemplifies this more than the Hasidic giant, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. He was the great grandson of the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov. If you have been to Israel, his followers are those hippie like youth who park their colorful van with large speakers on top, and sing and dance wildly on Ben Yehuda’s streets. Their goal is to allow God’s magnificence to overwhelm all other worries. You can’t get too afraid if you are dancing. Yirah, fear, must be understood as awe. They might even argue that fear of God is a good thing, and a good fear. If that terrifying Unetanah Tokef prayer motivates you to do good, to correct your wrongs and do better, then what’s wrong with that kind of fear? It can be motivating. It can even be edifying. But that’s not how I like to do things—not the dancing part—but the fear as a motivation part. Then again if that’s how the right thing gets done the tradition will take it. Personally, I prefer to understand yirah as awe and to try to infuse as much of life with the feeling of “that’s awesome.” Sometimes it does require a good deal of singing and most especially dancing. That’s the medicine. You have to get out there and move.

Among Rabbi Nachman’s most famous sayings is: “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar maod, v’haikar lo l’fached klal—the whole world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” It seems that Nachman did not just sing and dance. He was not oblivious to fear. The world does not always appear so wonderful. Sometimes it is constraining. At times it is narrowing. Summon the strength and walk forward. Do not be afraid. Easier said than done, Nachman. Sometimes we want to just curl up and not even look at that bridge. Sometimes we just want to turn around and walk in a different direction.

We walk the other way most especially when asked to meet new people. We would rather just hang out with friends. We would rather just go out with people we have known for years. It feels—well, safer. Judaism urges us to love our neighbor. V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha. But how many of us actually even know everyone who lives on our block? What about the people living down the street? How about those who live on the other side of town? How often have we actually struck up a conversation with someone standing in line next to us? Love the neighbor. But they could be different. They could even be dangerous. I get it. The Hebrew word for neighbor has embedded within the word for evil, rah. It’s a fine line. They could be strange. They could have ideas different from our own. And so, we retreat to known acquaintances. We withdraw to like-minded conversations.

Nothing has injured the bonds that can be made between neighbors, between those standing right by our side than that thing we clutch most tightly in our hands as if it is a lifeline. I am talking about the cellphone. We stand in line, with our earbuds in our ears, talking to friends miles away. We text people who may in fact be on the other side of the world but miss out on making a new friend who could be standing by our side. The world, and its myriad of people, and its possibilities for new friends and new discoveries, await us, but we scroll through Instagram photos posted by well tested friends or to make sure we have not missed out on some big event or some gathering. “Really Jenna was invited to that party. How come I wasn’t?” Snap a sad face to some of your friends to make sure they also were left out. It’s crushing. Look up. The sun is still shining. The sky is blue. Put on a song. Start tapping your feet and dance. Talk to the person standing next to you.

There is a fear that is driving all this. And it is called FOMO. Yes, my young students, you thought I was not paying attention. Fear of Missing Out seems to drive much of what we do. And it is real. I am not all suggesting, nor do I believe, that we should get rid of our iPhones. But we have to figure out how to use them and how not to be so dependent on them. They are extraordinary innovations. Who can imagine navigating traffic without Google Maps or doing homework without Google Translate? Who can imagine not being able to text or WhatsApp someone regardless of the time zone they are in? Then again try talking some more to the person who sits by your side, in the same time zone. For all the connectedness the cellphone provides we now recognize it causes a great deal of loneliness. And that is because people need connections in real time. People need words spoken to them and spoken with them. They need to look at each other when they are trying to say something really important, or something really difficult, like “I’m sorry.”

I have a crazy idea, albeit an old fashioned one, but one that I most especially hope my young students heed. As opposed to taking so many selfies of yourself in this place or that, text your friend the following words “I can’t wait to see you and tell you about this beautiful place I am visiting right now or this amazing experience I am having right now.” And then are you ready for this, when you see them, use your words to paint a picture of that place or that experience. Try doing that without scrolling through your photo roll. Because then you can fill in the nuance, the good moments as well as the bad. Have you ever seen my Facebook feed? It’s only pictures of me smiling, as well as of course a lot of blog posts and articles that I find thought provoking. Those pictures are all curated happiness. They’re just snippets of laughter and smiles. That’s not all there is to life. But this is what we do now. We accumulate “smile for the picture” snapshots and then what do we do next. We delete every picture from the photo roll that is not perfectly flattering.

That’s not real life. Reality is when you sit down with a friend and you talk about the good and the bad; it’s when you tell stories; it’s when you hug and when you hold people close. It’s when you open your heart to meeting new people and learning from other people. There have been recent studies that indicate the iPhone suppresses compassion. One study even found that when people are sitting around a table together, but leave their phones on that same table, their empathy and concern for others are diminished. I am just as guilty as the next person. “Why hasn’t Ari texted back? Oh my God. I hope he’s ok.” It’s been…five minutes already. I better check Find my Friends.

There is a world of people, friends and neighbors and even strangers, who are waiting to be listened to and learned from. And here is another idea and this one might be even more radical. Try leaving your phone at home for at least one hour on Shabbat, on Saturday. I’m not suggesting that we should start not using electricity and begin walking to shul on the Sabbath day. Just try this idea. And then, without your phone in tow, but instead, a friend by your side, go for a walk and just talk. Or go outside, even by yourself, in God’s big, beautiful world and take it in. Breath deep. Now you might miss out on taking a picture of a beautiful sunset, or even of a rainbow, or you might miss taking a picture of someone doing something really funny that you wish you could Snap to a friend, but that’s ok. Let those remain in your mind. File it away in your memories rather than among all those Gigs of storage.

Shabbat is supposed to be vayinafash. It’s supposed to restore our souls. It’s supposed to renew us. The tradition even suggests that we gain an extra soul on this day. Make use of it. If we are always looking for the next best selfie or the funniest Snap, if we are always pining after what we are missing out on, then there is no way we are going to enjoy where we are right here and now. So, look up from your phones and pay attention. The cure for FOMO is the person nearest you, the congregation sitting around you right now at this very moment. It’s not on your screens.

We now know. This wonderful device may in fact cause more fear than connectedness. It is deceptive. It seems like it connects us. I can talk to my kids no matter how far away they might be. Then again, I am inundated with alerts on a constant basis. My phone lights up: “The Supreme Court returns to a raft of polarizing cases…” and “Final: Eagles 31 Jets 6.” And I become agitated every time an alert flashes. I could have read that in the next day’s paper. I could have watched that on the evening news. I could have guessed the Jets would lose. Why do I need to know that right now? Fear seeps in. We are harried by this constant barrage of information. Will your fantasy league survive if you read the injury reports an hour later? Will your friendship likewise survive if you don’t Snap a picture of your new outfit? You might be surprised to hear this, but the answer is, yes. Everything will be ok. And you might be even better for it. Instead listen to some music. Or practice for your bar or bat mitzvah or talk about something important, or even something unimportant, with your family members. Or commiserate with the person standing next to you, as opposed the friend far away and say, “Oh God, those Jets.”

I’m not saying we should throw our phones in the garbage, or that you are going to see less pictures of my big toothed smile on Instagram and Facebook, but I am saying we should lean on our phones a lot less. Why? Because otherwise fear gnaws at you, persistent agitations creep into your soul. There is a simple, albeit difficult, answer for banishing these fears. Rely less on that device you clutch so tightly in your hand. Rely more on the people by your side. Rely more on the beautiful world that is outside your door. Rely less on all the information, and most especially all those pictures, that come through on your phone. This fear thing is within your grasp. You can get the best of it. Fear can be countered by trust. That is the root of the word for faith—emunah. And trust cannot be fashioned by short, staccato text messages or by smiling, Instagram photos. It is formed when you look into people’s eyes, when you hold them when they are down, or dance with them when they are happy. That is trust. That is true friendship. And that is what will banish all those fears.

The Jewish people have always placed hope before fear. We believe that tomorrow can be better than yesterday. We hope for a better future. At times we placed that belief in a messianic redeemer. At other times we placed that task in our own hands. But we have been steadfast and have always held hope before our eyes. In fact, the great Talmudic sage, Rava, ponders the questions God will ask us when we are welcomed into heaven. After asking, “Were you ethical in your business practices,” God asks, “Tzapita l’yehushuah—did you hope for salvation?” Did you have hope? We will be judged on whether or not we held fast to hope. We will not be judged on whether we called out this enemy or that. We will not even be asked were you a faithful friend. It’s all about hope. It’s all about pushing fear aside and placing hope before our eyes. Judaism is about hope more than fear.

Back to Rebbe Nachman. I only just discovered that his famous aphorism about walking a narrow bridge and not being afraid, the one that I grew up singing at summer camp, was really written by a contemporary rabbi. The eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi actually said the following: “Ha-adam tzaarich laavor et gesher tzaar maod maod. A person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. V’haklal v’haikar shelo yitpachaid klal. But the most important rule is: Don’t allow yourself to become afraid.” He did not say as I thought for so many years. “Do not fear.” But instead, “Do not allow yourself to become afraid.” The world, Nachman was even more keenly aware than I thought, is a frightening place, a very, very narrow bridge, but fear is in our hands. Push it aside. Don’t let it take hold. Sing and dance more. Text and Instagram less. Hold on to people more—even strangers. Be inspired and even overwhelmed with awe by the world around you. Fill your heart with hope.

A concluding story. I wish to return to where we began these High Holidays. I look back again to memories of the Holocaust. It is a story told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn who like our Annie survived Auschwitz. One winter evening, Gryn’s father called for him to come into a quiet corner of the barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in awe as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in the day’s miniscule butter ration. Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your butter. You need those calories to survive. We could have even shared the butter on that measly crust of bread they gave us. Instead you saved it to kindle Hanukkah lights?” Hugo’s father turned to him and said, “My dear son. You and I have seen that it possible to live a very, very long time without food. But Hugo, a person cannot live, for even a day, without hope.”

Fear can take hold of our hearts. Our souls can become overwhelmed with all sorts of worries. But we can regain mastery of our hearts. We can fill them with hope. All those Instagram photos of meals, or of smiling faces, do not represent true sustenance. Our true sustenance is hope. It’s actually the only thing that can sustain us and the only thing that can carry us forward. But it cannot be seen. No brand-new iPhone 11 can capture it. It’s hidden, but it’s just as real as all those fears. Fill your soul with hope. Carry it in your heart. Hold it fast. Banish all your fears.

It can begin with a song or even a dance. It can start with a new friend. Hope is our only true sustenance. And that sustenance is within reach. Grab hold. And banish all your fears.

Reckoning with Ourselves

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening.

Let me begin with a statement of faith. It is the most profound of Jewish teachings. It is this. We can change. We can do better. I recognize this is not always how things appear. This is not what current discourse suggests. Once a cheat, always a cheat. Once a sinner, always a sinner. Once a thief, always a thief. Commit one wrong, however large or small, and it will follow you the rest of your life. That is not Judaism’s perspective. There is always the potential for repair.

These High Holidays are a reaffirmation of this belief. We affirm that human beings have a remarkable potential for good. We acknowledge our mistakes together. We do not single one person out over another. We recount our wrongs in community. Why? So that we can do better. That in a nutshell is what all these hours of praying and fasting, of standing up and sitting down, of singing and beating our chests are all about. We can change. We can turn. We can devote ourselves to repentance. We can do better.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l tells the following story: When God begins to create the world with all of its wonders, God shares a secret with the angels. God tells them, human beings will be fashioned in God’s image. The angels become very jealous. In fact, they become outraged. Better God should give this precious gift to them, the angels. They say, “Why should humans be entrusted with such a precious gift. They are flawed. They make tons of mistakes. If humans find out their true power, they will abuse it. If they discover they are created in God’s image, then they will become better than the angels.” The angels conspire against God and God’s plan. They decide to steal God’s image. But now that God’s image is in their hands, they must pick a place to hide it so that humans can never find it. They gather for a brainstorming session—or as some might call it, a committee meeting.

The angel Gabriel suggests, “Let’s hide God’s image at the top of the highest mountain peak.” The others object, “One day humans will learn to climb—even Mount Everest—and then they will find it there.” The angel Michael says, “Let’s hide it at the bottom of the sea.” “No way,” the others loudly respond. “One day they will figure out how to explore even the farthest reaches of the oceans.” And so, one by one the angels suggest hiding places. All were rejected. But then Uriel, the wisest of all the angels, steps forward and says, “I know a place where people will never look.” “Where?” they cried. “In the human soul.” And so, the angels hide the precious image of God deep within the human soul.

And to this day God’s image lies hidden in the very place we are least likely to search for it. In our own souls. In the souls of those sitting next to us. In our neighbors’ and friends’ souls—and even in those of our enemies. Within every human being lies God’s image. Too often we forget it’s right there. Too often we forget that it’s hiding in plain sight. God’s image is hiding right before our eyes—in people.

Our faith does not believe we are inherently good, that doing the right thing comes easily and naturally, but instead there lies within each of us the possibility for good, the potential to do better. Hiding within every human soul is God’s image. Our job is to figure out how to unlock it and how to see it in others.

There is a tendency these days to look at others and allow their one wrong to label them. We see a wrong and we clamor for justice. We wish to right the wrongs committed.

The Talmud, the great repository of Jewish wisdom, wrestles with this very question. A long time ago, in the first century CE to be exact, two great rabbis argued about how to address this conflict between justice and repentance. These two rabbis were Hillel and Shammai. Being rabbis, they did not agree about much. They argued about almost everything. They debated how many candles to light on the first night of Hanukkah. Shammai said eight. Hillel said one.

They saw the world through different lenses. Shammai believed in absolute justice. He thought that the most important thing was getting it right, no matter the cost. Hillel, on the other hand, was a peacemaker. He seemed to think that justice could at times be compromised. Community, and family, come before absolute justice.

Among their many disagreements is the following: Hillel said, “Always tell the bride she is beautiful on her wedding day.” Shammai countered, “Just, tell her the truth.” Shammai must have always been screaming and shouting about truth and justice. It makes you wonder if he had any followers—or if he was able to get a long-term contract. I imagine he had a congregation of one. Hillel won the day with his counsel. He saw the divine image first. “She is beautiful to her partner. They are beautiful in each other’s eyes. That is all the truth that really matters.” Shammai stubbornly pursued truth at all costs.

A person approached the two about converting to Judaism and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai said, “Get the hell out of here. How dare you demean Jewish learning and ask me to reduce it to a few sentences.” Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” Hillel opened the door. Shammai remained unwavering in his commitment to truth and justice. Each represent legitimate perspectives. Only Hillel thought to unlock the divine image in everyone.

The Talmud reports about their argument concerning stolen property and in particular what we should do if that stolen item is now used for another purpose (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55a). “What happens,” the Talmud asks, “if a palace is built with a stolen beam?” Shammai responds, “Knock the house down.” It is, in a sense, rotten to the core. Its foundations are propped up by thievery and dishonesty. Hillel responds, “The thief must be pay for the value of the beam.” The house can remain standing. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we examined this text and discussed it at length. Many liked Shammai’s approach. To be honest I do as well. It gives one a sense of justice. Imagine what the person whose beam was stolen might think when looking at the palace. The Talmud of course anticipates these feelings. Why does Hillel rule in this manner? Why does Jewish law side with him rather than Shammai? Because his approach leaves open the possibility for repentance. And the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, want to leave that door open. It wants to leave open the possibility that someone can change and that the community can be made whole. Destroy the palace might seem like justice but all it really accomplishes is burning the house down. Then no one can use the beam again. And then, there is no possibility that the wrongdoer might change.

Shammai makes this day of Yom Kippur meaningless. He leaves all of us homeless. Sometimes all strict justice achieves is to take back what is rightfully ours or to take away what does not rightfully belong to another. It does not, however, accomplish the thing we most hope for, and what we most believe in. And that is repair. A person can change. That’s what this day is all about. And while none of us have stolen beams propping up our homes, all of us have done wrong, and have made mistakes. All we need to do is acknowledge these wrongs and seek repair. We have to figure out where those stolen beams of our lives might be. We have to acknowledge them. We have to figure out how to pay for them.

Among David Ben Gurion’s most controversial decisions was the reparations deal he brokered with Germany in the early 1950’s. By then Israel had resettled 500,000 Holocaust survivors. Leaders calculated that six billion dollars worth of Jewish property had been plundered by the Nazis. It was only a small majority of the Israeli Knesset that approved this reparations deal. It was an intensely controversial decision, and one that was accompanied by vociferous debate. Those on the right and left opposed it. Menachem Begin, a Holocaust survivor, led sometimes violent protests. People argued that accepting any money would be tantamount to forgiving Germany for its sins. Ben Gurion was a practical man and pressed forward. His fledgling country needed financial support. And so today, many of the buses and taxi cabs on Israel’s streets are Mercedes. In fact, Mercedes Benz is one of the few companies that reached a separate deal with Israel. In that 1988 deal the company admitted guilt and complicity for their WWII crimes.

I understand when people say that they will not buy any German products. I remember once hearing someone say she will never forgive the Germans, their children, grandchildren and even their great grandchildren. I understand and appreciate the emotion. I get the desire for justice. But Judaism also teaches about repentance and repair. I do not imagine that Ben Gurion was thinking about such Jewish principles when he advocated for this reparations deal. I reckon that all he was thinking about was his small country’s great needs. And yet his decision seems in keeping with Jewish tradition and belief. Of course justice for Eichmann y”s and all his henchmen, but leave open the door for change. These days there are a number of exchange programs involving Israeli and German youth. And now in the heart of Berlin, there is a striking monument to the murder of six million Jews, to the slaughter of six million of our people. It is a remarkable transformation. Germany erected a memorial to commemorate not its triumphs—there are no statues marking the bravery of Germany’s soldiers—but instead one to mark its sins.

This summer I ventured to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. I recognize this might sound like a strange destination for a rabbi, so let me explain. For two days a group of approximately fifty rabbis journeyed to Bryan Stevenson’s remarkable Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice. We toured the prominent sights of the civil rights struggle, visiting Martin Luther King’s home and walking across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge where the 1965 voting rights march began. We met with Dr. Shirely Cherry who took us through Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Parsonage. She has now retired from a life of teaching. She told us how she managed to go to college. Her mother worked day and night in a cleaner’s. And there, on many occasions she was forced to press and iron Klan robes. Imagine that. An African American woman having to iron KKK robes during the early days of the civil rights struggle. Dr. Cherry then said, “You need some humor when you’re fighting against wrongs,” and she then quipped, “I am proud to say I went to college on a Klan scholarship.”

But the humor felt uncomfortable. I felt as if I walked across a bridge into a country with which I was unfamiliar. It was a shattering experience. Walking through the streets of Montgomery on our way to find a good cup of coffee, Susie and I stumbled past what was once the slave market. Meandering along the river walk I was struck that this very place was once the bustling heart of our nation’s slave trade. Twelve million people were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and brought here to be enslaved in America’s South. After the international slave trade was outlawed, the slave owners came to Montgomery to buy and sell people. I read of this history in books but felt as if I was unaware until seeing it with my own eyes.

The memorial in particular is striking. It marks this history of lynchings committed throughout the South. The names of counties where these barbaric crimes were committed are etched on large iron, rectangular fixtures suspended from on high. There were seemingly innumerable towns hanging above us, as if swaying from trees. Mirror images of these are arrayed in horizontal rows nearby. And there one is confronted by a sign that reads, “These are intended for the counties to take and erect in their town squares.” There is not one empty space. No county or town throughout the South has taken the Legacy Museum up on its offer. There remains little acknowledgment of past misdeeds. I longed to see but one empty space.

I returned home determined to acknowledge more and learn more. I remain determined to change. Prior to leaving I sought out our local clergy. Reverend Linda Vanager and her husband Harry from the nearby Hood AME Zion Church agreed to meet with me despite the rather peculiar nature of my request. “I am about to go to Alabama to learn more about our nation’s history. Will you meet with me and help me prepare for this mission?” They could not have been more gracious. They came to the synagogue. We peppered each other with questions. I learned more about their faith, their ministry, their personal stories. We came into our sanctuary. I unrolled a Torah scroll for them. We embraced after hours of conversation. I returned from my trip and now visited their church on Summit Street. I must admit. I had driven by this church on countless occasions but rarely if ever took note. And yet here it has stood since 1848. How, and why, was it established along with its nearby Pine Hollow cemetery? Because the church founders’ white employers did not want sit next to them or church, and pray alongside them, or even be buried next to them.

I want to learn more. These days in Alabama were embarrassingly revelatory. There are certain images I cannot get out of mind. I want our young people to travel there. Our nation has not come to terms with its history or its racism. I am not sure of the path forward. I have determined it begins with acknowledgment. Looking back, even the smallest of things must be examined.

I confessed to my newfound friends. I said, “I have been a swimmer for most of my life. There was never a person of color on any of the swim teams in which I participated. The reason why, we would repeat to each other, year after year, on every swim team of which I was a member, is because blacks have a different body chemistry than whites. They have too much muscle mass to be good swimmers.” Our high school locker room discussions became heated on the one occasion when we swam against a team with a black swimmer. We contorted facts to fit our long-held theory. That belief was repeated over and over again. We were convinced of its truth because our lives stood apart from another reality. Linda and Harry stared at me. Their eyes seem to say, “We thought you were smart.” The obvious answer never occurred to me. Swimming requires pools. It means having grown up boating and sailing. For God’s sake I won’t even swim laps in a hotel pool if it is not regulation length. Can you get any more privileged than that? You fool. You need access to pools in order to learn how to swim. It never occurred to me before this summer that one of my greatest joys is not accessible to far too many people. I feel fortunate, and lucky, that Linda and Harry still want to be my friends.

And I am left searching for those hidden, stolen beams that prop up my own life. And I do not know how to effectuate repair. I do not even know where to begin. I am trying to listen to the voices of others. This day of Yom Kippur is about acknowledging our errors. And so, I begin by making this small confession. This day is also about believing that people can change.

There is a path to repentance. Acknowledge the error. Look for the divine image within others. Search for the divine image within yourself.

Rabbi Shammai added, “And always greet everyone with a smile.” That seems odd coming from him. Everything I know about Shammai would suggest that he grimaced more than he smiled, he shouted far more than he spoke measured words of softness. I imagine that Shammai had a mighty struggle within himself. He was preaching to himself. He seemed to be saying, keep on searching for that divine countenance. He so believed in truth and justice that sometimes that hidden, divine image became obscured from view. Sometimes it even obscured the divine image within his own soul. Perhaps the best sermon, and the best advice, is the one that you have the most trouble observing and doing yourself.

I am left searching for the image in myself. I am searching for the image in others.

Judaism believes in people. It does not believe that people are wholly good. It also conversely does not believe that people are wholly bad. The stain, and error, does not forever mark us. There is however a potential for good in each of us. We have to search for that good in ourselves and in others. We have to look for that divine image. It may be hiding. But it also can be found.

That search begins tonight. That search begins on this Yom Kippur.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Lane Assist Prayers

Recently I signed a new car lease. Why, you might ask, would a rabbi make his lease renewal date only days before Rosh Hashanah? Because his thoughts were elsewhere, focused on just about any other topic. For me a car is only about getting from point A to point B in the safest, and comfortable, and most affordable, manner possible. I don’t really pay attention to all of the new developments, and advances, in the automotive industry. I do, however, pay far more attention to such things when it comes to bicycles.

And so I was surprised to discover that my new car comes with a host of new features. In three years a lot seems to have changed. Let’s hear it for CarPlay! I am finding it somewhat difficult to adjust to the gas saving feature of the car’s engine turning off at a stoplight. Most remarkable of all is the lane assist technology. A confession. It beeps several times on my short drive from my home to the synagogue. And at times, this new technology, flashes green and gently pulls the car back into the lane.

This seems like the perfect way to understand the upcoming Yom Kippur prayers.

Yom Kippur is all about pulling us back into the lane...

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Antisemitism All Over Again

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning.

Let’s talk about anti-Semitism – again. To be honest, I don’t very much want to talk about it. I would prefer to talk about just about anything else. I always prefer to speak about the positive, about what makes us sing rather than cry, what makes us dance rather than what makes us afraid, but this year is different.

How could I not talk about anti-Semitism in a year when not just one American synagogue was attacked but two, when Jews were murdered as they did the most Jewish of things, give thanks for the blessing of the seventh day?

How could I be silent when eleven Jews were murdered as they gathered for Shabbat prayers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue? The sacred phrase, tree of life, now has a tainted resonance.

How could I as well speak about something else when the State of Israel continues to be vilified and even compared to Nazis in progressive, liberal circles?

How can I remain silent when those who murder Jews are praised among those who profess to champion the rights of women and minorities?

How can I talk about singing and dancing when synagogues are vandalized, when Jews are attacked in our city’s streets and the walls of our own nearby park spray painted with swastikas? I could go on. But I need not. The examples come at an almost daily pace.

I very much wish I could pick up the phone and speak with Annie...

Thursday, September 26, 2019

New Prayerbooks for New Year

This year we will be using a new High Holiday prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh. We are very excited about this change.  I am very much looking forward to using the Reform movement’s newly published machzor. After twenty years of using the old prayerbook I am ready for a change. We will of course still be treated to the same wonderful singing by our cantor. And the tradition’s Avinu Malkeinu and Kol Nidre will mark our days as they always have. We might be surprised, however, by some of the machzor’s innovations.

Next to all the Hebrew prayers one will now find English transliterations. This will provide an invitation for everyone to participate in our singing and praying. Also, the English translations, and readings, are more contemporary and modern. In addition, given that we were using several different editions of the old prayerbook, everyone will now be reading the same words. It is my belief that this new machzor will make our tradition’s prayers even more accessible.

One will also discover commentaries throughout the prayerbook explaining the High Holiday liturgy. Most beautiful of all, the machzor provides readings that help prepare our spirits for these Days of Awe. Arrayed on the pages one can find both traditional teachings and contemporary poems. While we will not read every line on every page, one is welcome to peruse these readings. The spirit of the day is to get lost in the prayerbook in order to emerge a stronger and better person. The pages of the machzor should not be viewed as a script as much as an invitation to look within at our souls. These prayers are not ends in themselves but tools to better ourselves.

How can we ask forgiveness of friends and family? How can we fill our hearts with gratitude?

And so as we prepare to enter the sanctuary, I offer two new readings from Mishkan HaNefesh.

First the traditional. Rabbi Israel Salanter was the founder of the Mussar movement of Orthodox Judaism. His goal was to return ethics to the center of Jewish life. Here is a story told about this great rabbi.
Rabbi Israel Salanter once spent the night at a shoemaker’s home. Late at night, he saw the man working by the light of a flickering candle. “Look how late it is,” the rabbi said. “Your candle is about to go out. Why are you still working? The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.” For weeks afterward, Rabbi Israel Salanter was heard repeating the shoemaker’s words to himself: “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.” As long as the candle burns—as long as the spark of life still shines—we can mend and heal, seek forgiveness and reconciliation. We can begin again.
And now the contemporary. Lewis Thomas, a twentieth century American physician and writer, teaches:
Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contended dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely out-numbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places. Even more astounding is our statistically improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.
And so yes, there will still be dancing!

There must always be dancing.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Cursing Our Way to Good

I don’t know very much Yiddish except a few words like shayna punim of which my unbiased grandmother believed I exhibited, chutzpah of which I have in apparent abundance and of course tuchus of which I have one. Recently, I learned a few more phrases and although I still have not achieved sufficient linguistic mastery, I have become enchanted with the language of my forebears. Yiddish is an extraordinarily colorful language filled with many creative ways to curse.

Here are but a few:
All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head.
God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.
He should have a large store, and whatever people ask for he shouldn’t have, and what he does have shouldn’t be requested.
His luck should be as bright as a new moon.
Your stomach will rumble so badly, you will think it was a Purim noisemaker.
And of course the well-known: “Go take a dump in the ocean.” The Yiddish is actually even more unseemly, but I will leave that to your imagination. Clearly this phrase is akin to the less colorful English curse, “Go jump in a lake” and means, “Get lost.”

Still, I never understood why jumping in a lake, or the ocean for that matter, is a curse. I love the water. Perhaps our Yiddish forebears were not very good swimmers and they could imagine nothing worse than being lost in the immense ocean. Then again, it could be because the vastness of lakes and oceans renders the person insignificant. It is as if to say, “Get away from me. You mean nothing to me. You are as insignificant as a small speck in the vast ocean.”

Curses reveal so much about a culture. Take note of the understanding of Jewish tradition found in these Yiddish phrases. The empty night sky of a new moon reminds us that our tradition marks the holidays by the moon. The boisterous sounds of Purim celebrations must be embedded in the Jewish heart. Cursing elucidates a culture.

It reveals hidden secrets. Women, who were relegated to traditional roles in shtetl life, perhaps gained the last word. They said in effect, “Let all the worries I carry, whether or not, for example, our children and friends will have food this coming Shabbat find their way into the mind of that guy who studies and prays all day and night.”

This week the Torah confronts us with a litany of curses. If the people obey God’s commands they are promised blessings. These are succinct and to the point. If not, they are cursed:
May the Lord strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish. The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. (Deuteronomy 28)
The curses continue in inordinate detail, promising boil-scars, itches and hemorrhoids. The intention is clear. If the people do not follow God’s commands then they will be struck with what they most fear. Their crops will not thrive. They will rot as soon as they are planted. Their bodies will be plagued by disease. They will find no relief from their most bothersome symptoms. It hearkens to “God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.” Again the cursing is colorful and vivid. Little is left to the imagination.

Usually when chanting these verses the Torah reader does so in a quiet voice so as to deemphasize the curses. We say in effect, “Let us not say out loud what can befall us.” I wish instead to think about what all this color, and imagination, reveals. The Torah’s curses serve to accentuate the blessings. They are the dark contrast that reveal the promise.

Without such a bold, and imaginative, list we might remain unaware of the possibility to achieve good. Likewise, Yiddish provides a plethora of terms for underachievers. “He is such a schlemiel” comes to mind. Why? So as to remind us that failing to do good is but one slip up away. The line between success and failure is but one small curse away—and this is always within our reach. Doing good is our most important goal.

And then I remember that I know at least one more Yiddish word. And it is the crowning goal of the Yiddish language. It is what all these curses, as well as the many terms for underachievers, point towards. And that word is mensch. I long to hear my grandmother say, “You’re such a mensch.”

The great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer once joked, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” But he also added: “Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.”

Be a good person. Be a mensch. The rest is commentary—and of course a measure of imagination and humor can help lead us there.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Eighteen Years Later

What follows is Friday evening's sermon on the occasion of the eighteenth anniversary of 9-11.

On Wednesday Susie and I dropped Ari off at JFK for the beginning of his year long journey. Aside from the emotions of seeing our son off as he begins his travels around the world, it occurred to me how ordinary this occasion was. I am not speaking of course about Ari backpacking to as yet unknown destinations and our expectations that we will soon receive random texts at some odd time of day and night saying something like, “Leaving Singapore, heading to Hanoi.” Or, “Decided to stay longer in Palermo.” I am instead speaking about how ordinary Wednesday, September 11, 2019 seemed. The airport provided its usual frustrations with all its boisterous honking and jockeying for a spot to drop him off. We hit traffic on the way home. I looked up when we were stopped on the Belt Parkway to see a large plane making a slow leftward turn on its approach to the airport.

Eighteen years ago I could not have imagined such a moment. I can still see the empty, blue skies over our backyard, after we had collected our then five and seven year olds from school. “Can we let them play outside?” Susie and I debated. I looked up from our backyard, and marveled at the sky’s blueness and its emptiness, save the occasional military helicopters loudly hurtling towards Manhattan. “We can’t keep them locked inside,” we finally decided. And then we hurried them in and out as we struggled to make up our minds over and over again. Everything stopped on that day. We felt as if it might forever stop.

Ten years ago we would have protested the day Ari decided to begin his journey. “Wait until Thursday to leave,” we might have said. This year I could not get over how ordinary and routine the day seemed. Of course I cried all over again as I tuned into the countless services, and most especially the service at the 9-11 memorial. I watched with renewed pain the remembrances held throughout the country, and even the one held in Israel. Still I did what I always do on any given Wednesday. It seemed like any other September day. I am not saying of course that the day 9-11 is not among our most wrenching and sacrosanct days. Americans attended services, watched any number of memorials on TV, or not so great made for TV movies. On Wednesday we reacquainted ourselves with the pained stories of those lost and those who died trying to save others. I think of the firefighters running up those stairs, sensing they might never walk down. Their photographs arrayed in The New York Times are still etched in my thoughts; they are forever before my eyes. I think of all those rescue workers, police officers, construction workers and volunteers who rushed to Ground Zero to help but now, years later, are plagued with unimaginable health consequences.

And yet, on this past Wednesday most of us went about our day like any other Wednesday in September.

Some things return to normal. We go to work. We go out to dinners. We go into the city for the theatre. There were days back then when I never could have imagined that someone could create, or would create, the most beautiful and moving show about that dark day. And, until this past Sunday I refused to go see Come from Away. We go to the beach. We go to the airport. And then again, there were days back then when we thought that going to the airport might never again be possible. We laugh. We sing. We cry—but no longer only about that Tuesday from eighteen years ago. Everything has not stopped.

And some things are never again the same. We are still afraid. We are afraid of travel. Before that day there was no place on earth beyond the travel destinations of our American can do attitude. Now we take those State Department Travel warnings seriously. Fear is lodged in our American hearts. We hesitate. Everything has not stopped, but there is a pause in our step, a hesitation in our decision making. “Is it safe?” we ask over and over again. “There are so many people there. It might not be safe to go watch the parade,” we think. We hesitate to meet new people. It is easier to stick with the friends we know. We pause before opening our hearts to strangers. “They could be…you know…” we think, sometimes quietly and sometimes not so quietly.

The hope that was the defining characteristic of America, the hope that inspired my grandparents to traverse the ocean and build a life here for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, is now overwhelmed by fear. Now our children openly say what would have been blasphemy to my grandparent’s generation, “Is this country really the best country in the world?”

Eighteen years later, I am not sure how to help banish this fear. But I have learned this. Fear is a matter of the heart. It has nothing to do with metal detectors, armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs. There can never be 100% safety and security. Not when riding a bicycle, driving in a car, flying in an airplane or walking on the sidewalk. There is no place on earth that is not touched by suffering and pain, violence and terrorism. We cannot run. We cannot hide. Eighteen years ago, we were na├»ve. We did not know then what we know now. That recognition, that knowing, that painful experience has made us fearful and afraid. But the heart is not our master. It does not rule our lives. We can control the heart. We can master our feelings and most especially our fears. As the Psalmist said, “Though they might surround me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27)

And so we can banish the terror; we can rid our hearts of fear. How? By not stopping. By not pausing. By at the very least, not hesitating so much and so often. By approaching the world, and other people, with more hope. By seeing in others the possibility for new insights and new loves. By looking to the world, and its many destinations, not just as potential enemies who may very well be arrayed against us, but as beacons for discovering some new truths. We must once again open our hearts to the world's nuances. We must no longer divide the world into us and them.

How do we banish fear? By not stopping. By not pausing. By not hesitating. Perhaps that answer was only just discovered this past Wednesday. Perhaps that answer can only begin to be discovered eighteen years later. This truth might still be found. It is found in going about our day like it was just another Wednesday in September. That is the most important thing we can do, and perhaps even the bravest thing we can do. We can push fear aside.

Fear need not rule our hearts.